Is a Real Estate Novelist from Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” an Actual Thing?

published Nov 23, 2023
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Billy Joel at piano in all black suit with blue and purple lighting
Credit: Debby Wong for shutterstock

In a record-breaking career spanning six decades, Billy Joel has become one of the most prolific songwriters in music history (although he only considers himself to be “OK” at songwriting). And while his legions of fans would certainly disagree with that assessment, Joel’s inherent humility about his abilities never rings truer than at his concerts, where thousands of loyal fans from all demographics sing every word to every song right back to him in unison.

Joel’s debut single, “Piano Man,” remains one of his most recognizable, a signature song in an illustrious career of many accolades. In honor of the 50th anniversary of its release, I found myself curious about one lyric in particular, in which Joel sings: “Now Paul is a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife.” I’ve always wondered if a “real estate novelist” is an actual thing, and if so, what is it, exactly?

Turns out, the fictional Paul is someone who has a day job as a real estate broker and a dream of penning the “Great American Novel,” as Joel himself explained in a masterclass at Harvard University back in 1994.

As Joel described it, Paul was a regular patron of the bar who would scoot up and tell anyone who might listen about his novel, a story that would become increasingly more incoherent the more Paul drank. Unfortunately, it seems there really is no such thing as a real estate novelist, with the title reflecting Paul’s unfulfilled dreams to be a writer, similar to the stories of the other patrons who would reflect upon their lives at the bar to whoever might lend an ear to listen.

Joel shared that all the characters from “Piano Man” were inspired by real people he met during a six-month tenure working at a now-defunct piano bar called The Executive Room in Los Angeles. Jill and Roy Hill, who co-owned the piano bar, shared that they weren’t sure Paul ever did finish that novel, with Roy telling PopSpots: “He was in real estate, but did he want to write a novel? He was a real person and he was still a regular under Jill’s watch and he often spoke of writing, but as far as I know nothing ever became of it.”

So while there’s no official literary genre that encapsulates the world of real estate, there’s a good chance there are plenty of fascinating stories to tell, should any real estate agents and/or realtors want to tell them.

As for Joel, the song’s lasting legacy seems to have surprised him more than anyone. He told Rolling Stone in 2017 that he “never thought” the song would be a hit. And when he sings it onstage — always the final act before a five-song encore — he joked that he’s usually thinking, “‘Oh, good, it’s almost over!’ I’m kidding. It’s gratifying to hear an audience sing your words,” he said. “But it’s more about feeling than thinking onstage. I like communicating with the musicians. Sometimes we tune into the same thing without signaling each other. There’s sort of a wizardry or sorcery to it.”